Skip to main content

Full text of "The place of history in the curriculum"

See other formats


16 
3 
S75 

°py 1 THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE 

CURRICULUM 



BT 



NATHANIEL W. STEPHENSON 



Eeprinted from the Annual Report of the American Historical Association 
for 1913, Volume I, pages 101-109 




WASHINGTON 



THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE 
CURRICULUM 



BT 



NATHANIEL W. STEPHENSON 



Reprinted from the Annual Report of the American Historical Association 
for 1913, Volume I, pages 101-109 




WASHINGTON 

iai5 



^\tp 



-5 



.61 



^ 




V. THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE CURRICULUM. 



By NATHANIEL W. STEPHENSON, 

Professor of History in the College of Charleston. 



101 



THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE CURRICULUM. 



By Nathaniel W. Stephenson. 



The subject assigned to me is ''The pLace of history in the cur- 
ricuhim," and I am given to understand that what is chiefly wanted 
is a discussion of its bearing upon secondary schools. I take it there 
ai-e involved two questions: Why is history in the curriculum at all? 
and, assuming its place there, What work is it expected to do? In 
a word, if I interpret my assignment correctly, I am to open the 
case on behalf of history as a secondary study by applying to it that 
touchstone which is the characteristic contemporaneous one in all 
things intellectual, the merciless question, "What's the use?'" So 
asks the modern world of all things; especially, so ask Americans. 
What's the use, in education, of Latin, of mechanics, of history; in 
a larger sphere, of morals, or art, of Christianity, of life itself? 

Let us imagine the American layman — the intelligent member of 
a school board, say — asking himself this question, Wiat's the use 
of history in schools? Where shall he look for an authoritative 
answer? Judging from my own experience, if he question rather 
widely he will soon be struck by the fact that the people most likely 
to have answers to the question are not agi-eed among themselves. If 
you will pardon the personality, I have had some opportunity to 
compare views on this point,' because in connection with an important 
publishing house it has been my duty to classify and report upon 
the various criticisms of presumptive authorities upon certain manu- 
scripts. What has struck me above all else is the great range and 
variety in the nature of the tests applied by these many-minded 
critics. I will not invariably accuse them of that vigilant mentality, 
so irksome to the average mind, which definitely formulates its 
standards. But none the less the standards are there, all the more 
insistent — as is the case with so many deep-laid things — ^because not 
tested by the pitiless exposure of a logical examination. 

An excellent instance of what I have in mind occurred the other 
day in a criticism of a grammar-school text of State history. The 
author had mentioned certain actions of the Civil War, but had con- 
tented himself — wisely, it seems to me — with a note that did not 
exceed mere mention. The critic in question objected with evident 
feeling. Singling out one of these actions he protested : " It was 

103 



104 AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION. 

imicli too gallant an achievement to be passed over in a footnote." 
Here is a point of view that could be matched in citations from other 
critics almost without number. And note how definite even though 
unformulated is the assumption lying behind it. Ask the critic, 
" What's the use in teaching history to the young? " and, if he is true 
to himself, he will say : " It's use is to inculcate principles of conduct, 
to cultivate a respect for brave and unselfish action." 

I am the last person to sneer at such a point of view. If our 
schools are not to inculcate courage and patriotism, I, for one, have 
no use for our schools. But is the history classroom the place in 
which to achieve this laudable end? Is not this chiefly an inci- 
dental accomplishment, a matter of the personal influence of the 
teacher's character — the one thing we appear to consider valueless 
in our present system when teachers are paid so often on the same 
scale as butlers, when none probably draw equal wages with a iirst- 
class chauffeur. In the history classroom are there not other lessons 
crying out for consideration that history alone can teach and are 
not these the things that history study ought to stress? Surely all 
of us here pi'esent will agree that such should be the case. History, 
even for the yoimg, is a subtler and more complex affair than any, 
even the most impressive, object lessons in civic virtue. ^Icrely to 
point a moral is too narrow a function for this rich and stimulating 
pursuit. 

Well, what else can we discover among the various viewpoints of 
our critics? One other stands conspicuous. Over and over again I 
have encountered the objection that a given manuscript does not 
sufficiently glorify our ancestors. History, as ancestor-worship, is 
the implied standard of innumerable critics. To inculcate a reve- 
rence for our own past, regardless of the question how much of that 
reverence is deserved; to soothe our vanity, to afford a Ijasis for the 
praise of ourselves — such, frankh', is the ignoble standard of a great 
army of the worshipers of their ancestors. Surely, one need but to 
mention this to do one's full duty by way of protest. "\^lio, with 
the genuine impulse of historical scholarship — the mere impulse, I 
say, let alone the achievement — can fail to be indignant over such an 
attitude? Virgil gave us our ti-ue motto when he put into the 
mouth of Aeneas, "Neither Trojan nor Tyrian shall sway me"; 
and Tennyson richly enlai'ged the theme when he expressed the 
spirit of jiure incjuiry — that spirit, remember, which failed in the 
"Palace of Art" merely l)ecause it attempted to substitute thought 
for life, not because it had a wrong conception of the life of 
thought — saying : 

I take iiossessiou of mau's uiiiul ami deed; 

I care not what the sects may brawl; 
I sit as God, holdiug no form of creed, 

But coutemplating all. 



THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE CURRICULUM. 105 

Of many other standards for the criticism of historical studies in 
secondary schools, I will forbear to speak. Cut there is one more 
that it is not safe to pass over in silence. However, before examining 
it permit me to arrange the perspective — if I may so express myself — 
in which this third great fallacy should be placed. In jjarenthesis, 
as it were, let me remind you of several things, common, I have no 
doubt, to the experience of us all. First, is there anyone accustomed 
to examme college freslmien in histoiy who does not feel that second- 
ary teaching of history, take it by and large, is at present chaotic? 
I should be most happy to be persuaded that my own experience is 
exceptional. I fear it is not. The historical impression left in the 
minds of high-school pupils is too often of the same sort as one that 
lay behind a paper in an English literature examination which I 
once assisted in conducting at a noted State university. The paper 
informed us that in Shakespeare's "Julius Cfesar,*' Caesar was 
warned to beware the ides of March, but that Ca;sar ignored the 
warning, and Brutus and Cassius and '• the rest of the ides " waylaid 
him and killed him. 

No, we confront a double confusion, a confusion of standards in 
the minds of the teachers, a confusion of impressions in the minds of 
the pupils. "We have not yet come to the third great fallacy, but are 
fast approaching it. It has been brought about in part — in part 
only — by the disgusted reaction of many well-meaning teachers 
against the crass absurdities of old-style memory drills in history. 
"What has paved the way to the third fallacy is a vain confusion of 
the teaching methods of high school and college. "Without entering 
into subtleties upon a matter so obvious to common sense, it is enough 
to remind ourselves that we were, our pupils still are, quite different 
beings at 15 and 20, and that methods which worked with us at the 
golden age of 15 were not the same as those which worked at the 
brazen age of 20. "Unfortunately, some good people have parted 
with their youth forever — alas, that it should be so — and can no lon- 
ger so much as guess at Wordsworth's meaning, praising the long 
happiness of " days bound each to each by natural piety." These 
unfortunate people, justly indignant over the confusion in a boy's 
mind of the slayers of Csesar with the ides of March, have no for- 
mula for a reformation, but to impose their mental processes — the 
processes not even of the brazen age, but so to speak of a still more 
sophisticated one, the age of iron — upon the stubborn romanticism, 
the potent idleness, of unconquered j'outh. 

And now for the third great fallacy. It is the assumption that his- 
tory, even in secondary schools, should be treated as a descriptive 
science, as the free play of a masterful curiosity ranging, with a 
.sportsman's instinct for the difficult, through the jungle of the joast. 
Such is the ideal of university history, an ideal of mature minds who 



106 AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATIOK. 

have reached a point where it is safe to eat the fruit of knowleilpe 
for its own sake, who may justly say, '• We are old enough to think 
of all mental activities but as tonics to our own minds ; " who may 
look with equal joy upon the handling of a policy by a statesman, or 
the management of a theme in a Wagner opera, or the smiling victor\' 
of Utamaro over the demon of a color chord that none but he could 
master. I am unable to measure my disdain for the man or woman 
of mature life to whom such a conception of history, of music, of 
painting, is a vain thing, who will omit it from a catalogue of the 
utilities of the spirit. Such a conception is involved in that true 
ideal of a liberal education so nobly phrased by Xewman in his 
seventh discourse on the " Idea of a University." But what, pray, 
has this to do with high schools? What connection between history 
as a descriptive science and the mental aptitudes, the general capaci- 
ties, of boys and girls of 14, 1.5, 16? For my own part the connec- 
tion appears so slight as to be practically negligible. Unless I am 
quite on the wrong track the idea of history as a descriptive science 
is as false a standard for the judgment of secondary teaching as are 
those other fallacies, histoi-y as sermonizing and history as ancestor 
worship. The consciousness of the years between 14 and 18 is still 
too plastic, too barbaric, if you will, for real results in descriptive 
science. Essentially impressionistic, these years must be cultivated 
through imagination upon the one hand and a discreet routine of 
habit upon the otiier. Analysis, genuine science, in history at least, 
is not yet. But it is in just these years that interest in history is 
most likely either to be established for life or be put to rout for life. 
Premature imposition of scientific methods may easily cut its throat. 
A warnmg never to be forgotten is that satiric fable which is a classic 
of the British medical tradition. 

Said an English surgeon of a certain supremely difficult opera- 
tion: 

" Yes ; it is a final test of the operator. I have ventured to per- 
form it only twice; both times, fortunately, with good results." 

"Pooh, that is nothing," said the Frenchman, ''I have performed 
it five times." 

" Indeed." replied the Englishman. "A wonderful record. And 
what of the patients?" 

" Oh," with a jaunty shrug of the shoulders, " they all died." 

Is there any doubt that the satire might be adapted to explain 
the active dislike of history ac(]uired by many a youth in school? 

Let us always remember that in secondary schools we are dealing 
with vivid, impressionable young people, quick to re-spond to any- 
thing that seems true, but having as yet slight power of analysis, 
still less fondness for analysis, and that all work done in this period 
is a sort of bridge linking the grammar-school age, in which analysis 



THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE CUBEICULUM. 107 

does not exist at all, with the college age, in which some degree of 
analytic faculty may always be assumed. In the secondary period 
the analytic faculty is to be awakened, but awakened with great 
cautiousness, got upon its feet with a patient tact, watchful lest the 
shy young thing escape out of one's hand into the desert of youth's 
illogical stubbornness. So, since our problem all through this diffi- 
cult age is to lure youth into the paths of analytic method, it be- 
hooves us to take very careful thought what use we can make of a 
given study in accomplishing this end, what place it should have in 
an ideal curriculum. 

Hitherto my paper has been made up chiefly of objections — of 
negation. Permit me now, briefly, to be positive. I speak but 
tentatively — especially in view of the names that follow mine on 
the program of this conference, names that justly carry such great 
weight of authority— and I never, I trust, forget that history and 
dogma are mutually exclusive, that even on this question of meth- 
ods of instruction the dogmatic historian is a contradiction in 
terms. That tribal poet who was the first historian — as well, appar- 
ently, as the first pragmatist — knew what he was about when he 
whispered out of the remotest past into Kipling's ear, " There are 
nine and forty M'ays of composing tribal lays. And every single one 
of them is right" — right, that is, if it arrives, if it delivers the 
goods. 

In this purely tentative spirit, then, I will venture upon two sug- 
gestions, hoping thus to contribute a little toward fixing the place, 
defining the function, of history in the secondary curriculum. One 
of my suggestions will deal with subject matter, the other with 
method. 

First, however, let us all take a momentary rcAnew of the various 
historical interests present in our own minds. Do we not find that 
they fall into three classes? To me, at least, this is unquestionable. 
I find in my mind to-day a vivid interest in the magnificent, the 
multiform drama of the warfare of man with circumstance consid- 
ered merely as a true story that thrills mj' heart like a trumpet; I 
find also an interest equally vivid in tracing back into the past the 
causes of the present, in locating there evidence that will explain 
the present; lastlj^, I find that subtlest interest of all — delight not 
primarily in the results of research but in its process, what we may 
call the interest of the historical sportsman, big-game shooting in 
the jungle of the past's misrepresentations. It is my fixed belief 
that all three interests are normal properties, genuine treasures, 
of the fully rounded, mature mind. To ignore the first — as is done 
by an entire school of historians, one of whose conspicuous mem- 
bers in a recent work on the Ci^^l War devotes to the actual drama, 
the agony and the bloody sweat just one page and a half — seems to 



108 AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION. 

me an abnormal point of N'iew. To my mind these three interests 
differ, not by the times at which they cease out of our lives — for I 
believe that none should ever cease — but by the times at which they 
enter our lives. And if such is the case, then of course the general 
character of study at the times when these interests successi\ely 
appear may easily be determined. 

Am I not right in thinking tlnit the purely dramatic interest 
traces back to earliest childhood and forms the true touchstone by 
which to try history teaching in the grammar-school period? Am 
I not also right in holding that at the other extreme the third inter- 
est — the zeal for research as an intellectual tonic, a force acting upon 
the mature mind in the same waj" as music and painting — is a thing 
practically unthinkable in all periods previous to that of the univer- 
sity or, at least, the college? Surely, then, it is in the intermediate 
period, the j^eriod when analysis is in the bud, when we need to en- 
courage it b}' giving it an obvious function reifdily grasped by com- 
mon sense, that we should take up the study of history as a conscious 
search for the explanation of our present world, the oracle from 
which, through due attention to its utterances, we may receive an 
answer to the question, How to live. 

Such, then, would be my touchstone of the subject matter of his- 
tory teaching in secondary schools. I would have it continue the 
interest in the human drama begun in the grammar-school period, 
but carefully blend with that interest the more advanced analytic 
one, the interest in the past as the clue to the labyrinth of the present. 
All the data employed, both in textbooks and in classrooms, should 
serve as predication of one or other of these subjects. 

But it is a truism that in every study the process is as vital a 
matter as the content. Here, again, I can not escape the conclusion 
that a whole school of teachers and textbook writers are gravely in 
eiTor. Even when they are seeking to explain the present by the 
past these teachers, these writers, vitiate their attempt through an 
inadequate sense of their undertaking. I refer to all those who 
carry to excess the topical method of study, who reduce their picture 
of the past to a series of propositions, a catalogue of illustrations, 
of applications. Did time permit, it would be interesting to analyze 
the textbooks of our day to show how insidiousl}' the topical method 
is replacing old conventions by new ones, substituting for the old 
canon of rigid propositions upon ancestor worship a new canon, 
rapidly solidifying into rigidity, of propositions upon economic 
effects in history; how, in both cases, understanding tends inevitably 
to give way to memory ; how, in a word, new presbyter again is but 
old priest writ large. 

But time docs not permit. I will content myself with a final and 
this time an unconditional statement. The one thing needful in 



THE PLACE OF HISTORY IN THE CUKBICULUM. 109 

history teaching, the thing so often missed, but without which tliere 
is no result worth while, is imagination. The process of ideal his- 
torical study all up and down the scale from kindergarten to uni- 
versity must be through and through imaginative. Not to catalogue 
the features of the past, but to re-create the life that once informed 
those features, is the true aim of history in all its phases. To ac- 
quire the difficult art of calling up that life, of bodying it forth out 
of the strange and ambiguous things known as human documents, is 
a feat of the disciplined imagination as difficult as it is precious. 

You will observe that I have dropped the word " science " and 
introduced the word " art." Both the charm and the pain of history 
grow out of its dual character, its miique blending of art and science. 
"\Mien one assigns as its highest function the extraction imaginatively 
of the fluid human facts — not the rigid physical facts — concealed in 
the written word or implied in tradition, one seems to make the 
historical imagination ahnost the same thing as the literary imagi- 
nation, to make history preponderently artistic. Into such a delicate 
subtlet}^ I may be forgiven for declining to enter in the last moment 
of my allotted time. 

Surely all of us, on second thought, whether we have an answer 
pat or only wish we had, appreciate that the historic imagination 
is not the same as the literary imagination. Let us go further and 
say that in history our imaginative effort, lacking much of the free- 
dom, the unscrupulousness of the literary imagination, yet resembles 
this literary imagination , in having a wonderful responsiveness to 
suggestion, but that in the case of history this responsiveness works 
under exact control, projecting upon an imaginary screen, as it were, 
not a picture of our own contriving, not impi-essionism of any sort, 
but a true and accurate bodying forth of suggestions contained in 
specific records. I am not sure that this is not a greater feat of 
imagination — in some ways, at least — than even the strictly literary 
feat. Certain I am that it is the last achievement of historical 
scholarship, that unfortunately few people experience it, and that, 
to the average reader of history, it is as foreign as Sophocles. 



018 461 638 5